Blog Directory CineVerse: 2021

It's still alive! Celebrate Frankenstein's 90th birthday with Cineversary

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

In Cineversary podcast episode #40, host Erik Martin has a monster of an interview with Boris Karloff's daughter Sara Karloff and David Skal, a highly respected horror film historian and author of the book Fright Favorites. Together, they commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1931 Universal horror classic Frankenstein, examining why the film is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the movie in 2021, and more.

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBreakerCastboxPocket CastsPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at anchor.fm/cineversary and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com

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Ushering in a new wave of gothic horror

Monday, October 11, 2021

The legacies of both Vincent Price and Roger Corman benefited from a serious bump in prestige thanks to their collaboration on the Poe cycle of films for American International Pictures, beginning in 1960 with The Fall of the House of Usher. While not the most faithful of story adaptations, this movie manages to stay relatively true to the spirit of the Poe source material while also showcasing Price’s indispensable ability to personify a disturbed and malevolent character in the gothic tradition. Our CineVerse tribe plunged into Shocktober Theater mode with full gusto last Wednesday and concluded the following about this film (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion):

What did you find surprising, memorable, impressive, or curious about The Fall of the House of Usher?

  • This is an extreme widescreen film, shot in CinemaScope at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, a very wide framing that may or may not work to the film’s advantage. Many believe this aspect ratio hurts the picture, as it keeps the action at a distance and reveals ample dead space, preventing more intimate views of the four characters. On the other hand, it lends cachet and gravitas to the look of the film and makes the house appear ominous and sprawling, with many places for its creepy characters to hide.
  • Price is well cast in this role of an oversensitive aristocratic control freak who uses a hushed tone and reserved temperament to characterize this tortured, twisted soul; he’s not hamming it up here and chewing the scenery as he is accused of doing and other productions. Additionally, his bleached white hair and lack of familiar mustache give Price a unique look that deviates from his expected countenance.
  • This is probably the truest Hollywood adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, at least up to that point – certainly it’s the most accurate version of a Poe tale within Roger Corman’s Poe cycle of eight films. However, the filmmakers alter things a bit by changing the character of the narrator to the fiancé of Madeleine and making his attempt to persuade Madeleine to leave, to the objection of Roderick, the central conflict.
  • In this version of the story, it is more strongly suggested that there are supernatural elements at work, such as a truly haunted house that is trying to kill the outside interloper and ensure that the last of the Usher line, as represented by Roderick and Madeleine, will not escape, nor will its secrets. As Corman said to the film’s producers in his attempt to get them to greenlight the picture, “the house is the monster.”
  • Arguably the worst element in the picture is the casting and performance of Mark Damon as Philip: a pretty boy face, but an actor with the worst tendencies and timing.
  • Corman, who’d already demonstrated for years with AIP that he was an extremely efficient director (sometimes shooting films in as quickly as a handful of days), proved how industrious, inventive, and resourceful he truly was by convincing the studio to choose a story in the public domain – one that any high school student would likely be familiar with – and by shooting on the fly of the location scorched by a forest fire to capture the opening sequence when Philip arrives. Some shots of the concluding house burning sequence were filmed at a remote California barn scheduled to be torn down but which Corman burned instead.
  • Corman was obviously motivated by the impact of Hammer Films and its reinvention of gothic horror tales like The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula, which were filmed in color, showcased fairly opulent sets despite a low budget, showed red blood to moviegoers for the first time, and featured voluptuous actresses. Corman copies this template in this, the first in his Poe series.

Major themes

  • The sins of the father are visited upon the son (and daughter). Roderick and Madeleine come from a cursed lineage and bear the psychological and biological burden of their family’s tainted line. One subtextual reading of this tale is that the Ushers are an inbred clan in which incest and sexual depravity have scandalized and weakened the genes and reputation of this family. There’s more than a hint here that Roderick has a secret sexual relationship with his sister.
  • The unhealthy symbiotic relationship between a dwelling and its inhabitants. The house of Usher stands as an externalization of Roderick’s id and a physical manifestation of his unhealthy thoughts and corrupted mind. It’s no surprise, then, that the house increasingly cracks and crumbles as Philip persists in attempting to lure Madeleine away from Roderick, who is determined to keep her in the house and prevent the Usher line from continuing.
  • The unavoidable power of the death drive. According to Wikipedia, “In classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the death drive is the drive toward death and destruction, often expressed through behaviors such as aggression, repetition compulsion, and self-destructiveness.”
  • Blood is thicker than water. Despite Philip’s admirable love for and devotion to Madeleine, his will, youth, and determination cannot prevail against hereditary forces and familial ties.

Similar works

  • The Haunting
  • House on Haunted Hill
  • The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Tomb of Ligeia – two other Poe films similar in theme and design
  • Hammer horror films of the 1950s and 1960s
  • Great Expectations
  • The Shining

Other films directed by Roger Corman

  • Subsequent movies in the Poe cycle, including The Pit and the Pendulum, Premature Burial, Tales of Terror, The Haunted Palace, The Raven, The Masque of the Red Death, and The Tomb of Ligeia
  • The Little Shop of Horrors
  • A Bucket of Blood
  • The Trip

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I've got you under my skin

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Sci-fi-flavored horror is a hybrid subgenre represented by several excellent works, including Alien, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. A worthy addition to that list of exemplary films is Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson. The CineVerse faithful carefully evaluated this picture last week and arrived at the following observations (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What got under your skin about “Under the Skin,” good or bad?

  • It casts Johansson, renowned as a voluptuous and alluring actress, but downplays her nude scenes as quite matter-of-fact and non-titillating.
  • The narrative is decidedly enigmatic and opaque, refusing to provide context, backstory, or explanation about why these aliens are here, the relationship between Laura and her motorcycle handlers, or exactly why she deviates from her presumably assigned course of predatory behavior.
    • Note that, in the novel upon which this screenplay is based, the female alien’s mission is to entrap men who will be served up as a culinary delicacy on her home planet.
  • This movie abandons all the trappings of a traditional science fiction film, which you would expect to showcase snazzy special effects, spacecraft, interstellar travel, and futuristic technology.
  • The opening sequence, which reminds the viewer somewhat of 2001: A Space Odyssey in its style and strange visual approach, is distinctively offbeat: Are we witnessing the birth of Laura as an automaton-like creature who is being programmed? Is the circular object an eyeball or a distant planet/star?
  • The filmmakers adopt a guerrilla-style neorealism approach by filming, with hidden cameras, non-actors being propositioned and invited into the van by a disguised Johansson. This technique creates realistic, natural, and spontaneous engagements between the actress and these unsuspecting passersby.
  • It’s rare to see a non-X-rated film featuring full-frontal male nudity, including erections.

Major themes

  • The hunted becomes the hunter, and vice versa. This is a reversal of the expected paradigm in which men are the predators and women are the prey. In many ways, this film could open male eyes about what it feels like to be a victim of sexually predatory behavior.
    • The Mary Sue writer Kristi Puchko wrote that Under the Skin “creates a reverse of contemporary rape culture where violence against women is so common that women are casually warned to be ever alert for those who might harm them… By and large men don’t worry about their safety in the same way when walking home late at night. But in the world of Under the Skin, they absolutely should.”
    • Film essayist Sarah Mirk wrote: “As an alien, Johansson was fearless. As a woman, she realizes that while her body is certainly powerful, she is vulnerable in this strange world.”
  • The extent to which women are seen and considered as sex objects by men. Interestingly, by the film’s conclusion, the tables have turned and a more empathetic Laura is pursued by a man bent on sexual violence.
    • Slant magazine writer Ed Gonzales wrote that Laura is “aware of her appeal to men, views sexual fulfillment as an abstraction, and when she allows herself to be penetrated by a comforting stranger, her reaction sends her spiraling into an oblivion not unlike that into which she drops her victims. She’s still not of this Earth, but now her alienness is a marker of her naïveté, of a very recognizable sense of estrangement. And in a haunting sojourn through a woodsy gulf between fantasy and reality that’s as bracing as the story’s ellipses, the existentially uprooted Laura seems to understand herself in the way she does her victims, as commodity, and recoils from the horror of her sentience manifesting itself from sexual initiation and, subsequently, degradation. And that, the film articulates through its abstract movie-ness, is no way for a girl to come to understand her body, regardless of what’s under her skin.”
  • The universality of the human condition. The alien Laura appears dispassionate, cold, and uncaring about the fates of her male victims until she starts to develop empathy after putting herself in the shoes of a disfigured man she releases and following her discovery that she possesses female genitalia and a body that brings pleasure and excitement. Despite her extraterrestrial status, we see how she becomes curious about what it’s like to be human – wanting to eat cake and engage in lovemaking. And we also witness how, even though she is “under the skin” an extraterrestrial, like human beings she can feel empathy, confusion, loneliness, fear, pain, and lack of dignity.
  • The unavoidable power of the death drive. According to Wikipedia, “In classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the death drive is the drive toward death and destruction, often expressed through behaviors such as aggression, repetition compulsion, and self-destructiveness.”

Similar works

  • The Man Who Fell to Earth
  • Starman
  • Species
  • My Stepmother is an Alien
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • 10
  • Red Road
  • Monster
  • Her
  • The Elephant Man
  • Ex Machina

Other films directed by Jonathan Glazer

  • Sexy Beast
  • Birth
  • The Fall

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A sacred screwball

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

One of the screwballiest of comedies released in the 1930s is William Wellman’s sharp satire of the media and celebrity culture Nothing Sacred, starring Carol Lombard and Fredric March. Our CineVerse group fine-tooth-combed this film last week and came away with strong favorable impressions, as summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion of this film, click here).

What emerges as unforeseen, enjoyable, offbeat, or noteworthy about Nothing Sacred?

  • Most of the comedy still works today, from slapstick moments like the kid biting Wally’s leg (which works as an in-joke about how a ‘man biting a dog’ is more newsworthy than a dog biting a man, in this case, a child biting a dog of a man) to the sexually-tinged quips delivered by the emcee during the “Heroines of History” floorshow to the running gag of the small-town folk saying only “yep” and “nope” when Wally asks them questions. The comedic lines are crackling and sharp throughout:
    • “You're a newspaperman. I can smell 'em. I've always been able to smell 'em. Excuse me while I open the window?”
    • "I'll tell you briefly what I think of newspapermen. The hand of God, reaching down into the mire, couldn't elevate one of them to the depths of degradation."
    • “He's sort of a cross between a Ferris wheel and a werewolf. But with a lovable streak if you care to blast for it."
  • The film’s pedigree is impressive: Produced by David O Selznick; directed by Wellman; written by Ben Hecht (known for His Girl Friday, Scarface, Notorious, Spellbound, Kiss of Death, and countless other screenplays); polished by contributing writers Ring Lardner Jr., Budd Schulberg, Moss Hart, George S Kaufman, and Dorothy Parker; scored by Oscar Levant, Alfred Newman, and Max Steiner; and starring Lombard and March with a winning supporting cast.
  • There are some cringe-worthy non-PC moments, including racial stereotyping of a heavyset black man, use of the word “darkies,” and the punching of a woman in the face, that date this film and detract from the entertainment value.
  • This film falls firmly within the screwball comedy subgenre—movies that often featured:
    • Farcical stories and situations—where the film pokes fun at stereotypical characters, such as fatcat filthy rich fathers and spoiled rotten daughters (such as My Man Godfrey)
    • Fast pacing in the humor and repartee, direction, editing, and dialogue delivery (like His Girl Friday)
    • Physical humor, including slapstick (Bringing Up Baby), pratfalls (The Lady Eve), and sight gags (To Be Or Not To Be), often used to elicit major laughs and make dignified characters look ridiculous
    • A plot centered on courtship and marriage (The Philadelphia Story) or remarriage (The Awful Truth)
    • Themes highlighting the differences between upper and lower socioeconomic classes, with many of the settings taking place among the high society but involving a likable male love interest from the other side of the tracks (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, It Happened One Night)
    • A female lead who is often strong-willed, determined, and sometimes tomboyish, commonly depicted as stronger and even smarter than her male counterpart (Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve)
    • A story involving mistaken identity, misunderstanding, or the keeping of an important secret, occasionally involving cross-dressing or masquerading (Some Like it Hot, Bringing Up Baby)
    • A classic battle of the sexes between a man and a woman, with the male lead’s masculinity often challenged by a strong female love interest (The Awful Truth)
    • Colorful supporting characters with quirky personalities (Barry Fitzgerald’s gardener in Bringing Up Baby, Mischa Auer’s protégé Carlo in My Man Godfrey)
    • Often a secondary character (such as a third wheel male suitor) who is more prim, proper, and boring (Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth)
    • The golden period of screwball comedies was between 1934 and 1944, bookended somewhat between It Happened One Night and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

Major themes

  • Media sensationalism and yellow journalism. This movie satirizes the immoral and dishonest practices of newspapers and reporters, who would practically sell their souls to get a scoop on a hot story. The filmmakers also suggest how disposable and unpleasant the newspaper product is, as evidenced by how it is used to wrap dead fish.
  • The public’s fickle fascination with celebrity culture and human interest stories. Film reviewer Casey Broadwater wrote: “What stands out here is just how scathing (Ben) Hecht's script is when it comes to satirizing the muckraking, tragedy-mongering tendencies of newspapers and the disingenuous sympathy of their readers, who delusionally believe--as Oliver puts it--that their "phony hearts" are "dripping with the milk of human kindness." When, in actuality, of course, they just want to gawk and gossip and revel in another's misfortune.”
  • People are self-serving and materialistic everywhere – from the Big Apple to the small towns like Warsaw, Vermont. Film credit Emmanuel Levy wrote: “The movie presents a counter-view to Hollywood’s predominant imagery of small-town. Nothing Sacred is a rare film in that it suggests that there are no significant differences between small-town and big city’s folks since their conduct is shaped by similar (selfish) motivations.”

Similar works

  • It Happened One Night
  • Libeled Lady
  • The Talk of the Town
  • The Fortune Cookie
  • The Out-of-Towners
  • A Star Is Born
  • Screwball comedies like The Lady Eve, Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, and The Awful Truth

Other films by William Wellman

  • The Ox-Bow Incident
  • A Star Is Born
  • The Public Enemy
  • Wings
  • Yellow Sky

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Tree-mendous reimagining of a fairy tale

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Pop singer Bjork is known for more than her outlandish attire (remember that outrageous swan dress she wore at the 2001 Academy Awards?) and edgy 1990s music videos. Years earlier, she also established herself as a formidable actress, as evidenced by her performance in The Juniper Tree, a lesser-known indie darling from 1990. That was last week’s spotlight film for CineVerse, which fostered a robust conversation about the merits and misses of this movie (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here), as summarized below.

What struck you as different, unanticipated, thought-provoking, or impressive about The Juniper Tree?

  • Pop stars can act. The casting of Bjork, while seemingly a curious one (and consider that she was not a well-known musician yet when this was filmed), is an inspired one that pays off. Her Margit is believable as a haunted, compassionate, perceptive stray soul.
  • The visuals are exceptional. Black-and-white is the perfect palette to depict this medieval adaptation of a fairytale, and the decision to shoot throughout South Iceland – a location known for its natural scenic beauty, as popularized in recent films like Captain America, The Tree of Life, and The Fate of the Furious – proves ideal.
  • The film is imbued with a surrealistic, lyrical quality that plays not like a plot-driven movie but more like visual poetry (recall, too, the citing of a T.S. Eliot poem in the prologue). The infrequent dialogue, lack of character development and narrative exposition, and absence of closure or explanation of meaning force us to pay more attention to the imagery, sounds, and negative space (topography that would otherwise be filled with more people, buildings, and action).
  • In this story, we are meant to take the witchcraft and supernatural elements literally, just as you would if told a bedtime fairytale.
    • However, director Nietzchka Keene said in an interview that she wasn’t intending to make a statement about witchcraft, and the movie doesn’t suggest that the spells truly work.
    • Blogger Dan Willard wrote: “She feels that many who were accused of witchcraft in the early 17th century were merely practicing folk medicine. The sisters use the only knowledge they have in an effort to control an environment in which they are extremely vulnerable. Keene was more interested in creating a fairy tale world and a mood of melancholic loneliness which is part of the reason she chose to shoot in black and white on bleak locations.”
  • This is an attempt at a revisionist fairytale in which the wicked stepmother character is reimagined or at least presented from her point of view, as well as the POV of another important female character (her sister Margit).
    • Film Comment writer Mark Asch wrote: “Keene is doing the right kind of critical revisionism, adding rather than subtracting—reframing the uncanny, contorted alien logic of folktales within a politically updated dynamic, offering her own interpretation of an old story while honoring its lingering richness.”

Major themes

  • Resourcefulness is required to survive in a harsh world. This feminist retelling of a Grimm Brothers fairy tale about a wicked stepmother portrays that character in a more sympathetic light, especially considering that her mother was stoned and burned as a witch and she and her sister Margit were forced to flee and go into hiding. Katla uses witchcraft to keep her and Margit safe and secure.
  • Females are powerful and not to be underestimated. The fact that Katla and Margit apparently have supernatural abilities in this story suggests that women are special, possessing agency, powerful talents, and ingenuity that can help them survive and thrive in a patriarchal-controlled world.
  • The power of love and memory to transcend death. Margit’s ability to see visions of and communicate with her dead mother speaks to the strong bond between mother and child and our collective human struggle to overcome grief, understand mortality, and accept the possibility of an afterlife. Margit also interprets the appearance of a raven as an embodiment of the surviving spirit of the dead boy Jonas, whom she has also not forgotten.
  • Conflicting loyalties and the “challenges faced by blended families,” according to Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips.
  • Rebirth and reincarnation

Similar works

  • The Seventh Seal and other films by Ingmar Bergman
  • The Witch
  • The Strange Case of Angelica
  • The Secret of Roan Inish
  • Into the Woods
  • The Brothers Grimm
  • I Married a Witch
  • Wicked Stepmother
  • The Crucible
  • Wendy
  • The Song of Bernadette

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Taking the scenic (and surreal) route across Mulholland Drive

Monday, September 20, 2021

For Cineversary podcast episode #39, host Erik Martin tackles a tantalizing but tricky cinematic text, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which celebrates a 20th anniversary this year. Joining Erik this month are two terrific guests: Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and author of the book David Lynch: The Man From Another Place; and Chris Rodley, a UK-based filmmaker and editor of the book Lynch on Lynch. Erik, Dennis, and Chris claim a front-row seat at Club Silencio as they attempt to make sense of the movie and examine why Mulholland Drive is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the movie in 2021, and more.

Dennis Lim
Chris Rodley
To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker, Castbox, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast. Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at anchor.fm/cineversary and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.


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Far from a "Farewell" to noir

Monday, September 13, 2021


Despite what many believe, film noir didn’t fade away after the fifties. Its roots found fertile ground in the 1970s, with dark dramas like Klute, Dirty Harry, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Gumshoe, Chinatown, and Night Moves revitalizing the genre. Included in that wave of neo-noir throwbacks five decades ago is Farewell My Lovely, an interesting adaptation of a Raymond Chandler story featuring detective Philip Marlowe, this time with rugged but wrinkled Robert Mitchum playing our favorite private eye. CineVerse examined this picture last week and came away impressed by its fidelity to Chandler’s source material and to the spirit of classic noir (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). A summary of our conversation follows.

What did you find surprising, memorable, unexpected, or refreshing about Farewell My Lovely?

  • Unlike other neo-noir films of this era, such as Klute, Serpico, The Long Goodbye, and Mean Streets—all of which were used a contemporary setting—this was an attempt to adapt a classic noir tale in a retro fashion by using voiceover narration, employing flashbacks and noir conventions, casting two actors who remind us of classic 1940s-1950s noir (Mitchum and Charlotte Rampling, who is meant to look like Lauren Bacall), and setting the story at a time when noir was first blossoming: 1941.
  • It’s also a relatively faithful adaptation of a Chandler story, unlike the earlier adaptation Murder My Sweet or 1973’s The Long Goodbye.
  • One of the great pleasures of watching this picture is hearing the crackling hardboiled dialogue delivered by Mitchum, who utters one great line after another, such as:
    • The house itself wasn't much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler building.
    • She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.
    • It was one of those transient motels, something between a fleabag and a dive.
    • I sparred with the night clerk for a couple of minutes, but it was like trying to open a sardine can after you broke off the metal lip. There was something about Abraham Lincoln's picture that loosened him up.
  • Mitchum is a major improvement as private detective Philip Marlowe versus Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet. Even though Mitchum is probably 20 years older than the character as written by Chandler, he perfectly embodies this role.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: ” He was born to play the weary, cynical, doggedly romantic Marlowe. His voice and his face and the way he lights his cigarette are all exactly right, and seem totally effortless. That's his trademark. In a good Mitchum performance, we are never aware he is acting. And it is only when we measure the distances between his characters that we can see what he is doing.”
  • This is a very cynical and adult take on a Marlowe screen story, one that reflects the pessimism and R-rated culture of the mid-1970s. The movie is brutally honest about 1940s racist attitudes among police officers and whites, there’s a brothel scene showing full-frontal nudity, and we hear an old-timey private eye use profanity.
  • Like other Chandler stories and Marlowe yarns, the plot of Farewell My Lovely can sometimes be hard to follow, and some character motivations are difficult to explain/understand (such as why Marlowe is kept prisoner and doped up at the brothel and why Sylvester Stallone’s tough guy goes so far as to kill Amthor). However, the best attributes of Chandler stories are their dialogue, mood, and colorful characters—not necessarily the plots.

Major themes

  • Duplicity and deceit: The femme fatale in this story goes by two names – Velma and Helen Grayle
  • Corruption and greed: Everyone in this murky milieu can be had for a price, even the police.
  • The impossibility of innocence: In the dark, seedy world of noir, all souls are tarnished and tempted, and everyone seems to be sinful. Arguably, the most virtuous character in this tale is Marlowe’s friend who runs the newsstand.
  • The hunter becomes the hunted. Marlowe is a private eye investigating mysteries and searching for people, but he is also sought by Moose, Brunette, Helen, Judge Baxter, and the police.

Similar works

  • The Falcon Takes Over, and Murder My Sweet: two earlier adaptations of this Raymond Chandler story
  • The Godfather, The Long Goodbye, and Chinatown: three immediate predecessors that were all neo-noirs and period films
  • The Big Sleep (1978), another remake of a classic Chandler story, also starring Robert Mitchum
  • The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a 1973 neo noir also starring Mitchum
  • Marlowe (1969)

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The Meek shall inherit the earth--or not

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Here’s a welcome departure from western genre conventions: an oater directed by a woman and primarily featuring female characters that doesn’t rely on action or romance to enthrall audiences. Meek’s Cutoff checks off all those boxes and more.

Last week, our CineVerse group attempted to better understand this underrated feature. Here are several of the observations we came to (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find memorable, surprising, refreshing, or different about Meek’s Cutoff?

  • This is not presented in the typical modern widescreen format of 1.85:1 or larger. Instead, the filmmakers employ the aspect ratio of classic Hollywood of the 1940s and earlier, roughly 1.33:1, which essentially boxes in the characters, despite the expansive landscape surrounding them.
  • This film deviates significantly from most westerns and the expectations that genre fans have. There is very little action, no gunfights, no bloody skirmishes between cowboys and Indians, and no romantic subplot.
    • Slant Magazine reviewer Nick Schager wrote: “Rather than expansive widescreen, she shoots in a boxy Academy-standard 4:3 aspect ratio that turns the vast Oregon plains claustrophobic; instead of expressive close-ups that capture frontiersmen and women’s tumultuous conditions, she opts for medium and long shots that keep her subjects at a distance; and in place of gunfire-peppered narrative momentum and relatively clear-cut good-versus-evil characterizations, she slows her material to a crawl and drenches her action in ambiguity, to the point that the entire affair quickly becomes engulfed in literal and moral/spiritual haziness.”
  • The point of view is told more from the female characters’ perspective. The camera lingers more with them, especially when the men are consumed by a job or go off to capture the Native American, for example.
  • The ending is ambiguous and unresolved, suggesting perhaps that our characters are in a no-win situation in which the conclusion is irrelevant – they are likely doomed no matter what happens and we, like them, are left to linger on an unsettling ending to the story.
  • The soundtrack and sound design are interesting; we hear very little musical score throughout the movie, and the dyad soundscape is relatively quiet. That makes us listen more attentively when we hear recurring noises like a creaky wagon wheel, squeaky hand-crank, chittering bird, or scraping on a rock or piece of wood.

Major themes

  • The blind following the blind, or the dangers of following an entrusted leader into uncharted territory. Meek seems full of tall tales, bluster, and bravado, but he’s gotten the group lost and, by the end of the story, relinquishes leadership and responsibility.
  • Trust versus logic, or blind faith versus rational thought
  • The chasm between different cultures. The westward settlers cannot communicate with or understand the Native American they have captured and vice versa. Yet, each side is dependent on the other for survival.
  • The story of America shouldn’t exclusively focus on or be told by men. Women played just as important a part in even the smallest of stories of our nation’s growth and struggle. A strong female character like Emily demonstrates that, while women on the frontier likely lacked agency and authority, they could make their voices heard and opinions known. We see how hard the women toiled, just like the men, in making the journey westward and trying to eke out a hardscrabble existence in the 1900s. This picture demonstrates that the sacrifices made by the wives, mothers, and daughters were equally significant.
  • The white man’s imperialistic attitude toward the land and the native peoples they attempted to conquer.

Similar works

  • Little Woods
  • McCabe and Mrs. Miller
  • Days of Heaven
  • Gerry
  • The Horseman

Other films directed by Kelly Reichardt

  • Wendy and Lucy
  • Old Joy
  • Night Moves
  • Certain Women
  • First Cow

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Beware of the wee beasts

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

As an allegory and cautionary tale about the tendency for human beings to be innately inhumane under the right conditions, William Golding’s literary classic The Lord of the Flies works astoundingly well. As a 1963 film adaptation directed by Peter Brook, The Lord of the Flies achieves similar greatness, expounding on the source material’s dark themes and imbuing the visuals with verisimilitude thanks to the commitment to shoot in monochrome on location with untrained actors. Our CineVerse group conducted a dialogue about this picture last week, with the following observations and opinions made (to hear a recording of our discussion, click here).

What did you find interesting, unexpected, refreshing, or rewarding about Lord of the Flies?

  • It is admirably faithful to the source novel, reproducing the same characters, situations, and much of the dialogue found in the book, although the events are condensed; instead of occurring over presumably several weeks, this story on the island takes place over just a handful of days.
  • The filmmakers chose to shoot in cinema verité style, lending a documentary-like realism to the look and feel of the movie. To up the authenticity factor, nonprofessionals were cast as the child characters (many of whom never acted again) and the picture was shot not in a studio but on location on a real island near Puerto Rico, where the cast and crew were sequestered for several weeks. Black-and-white film stock was also selected, which accentuates the stark themes espoused in the story and forces us to pay more attention to the characters and situations than the beautifully exotic surroundings, which would have been colorful but distracting to what the filmmakers wanted us to focus on.
  • Although some of the acting from these amateur and inexperienced child thespians is stilted, awkward, and less than desirable, many of these children deliver wonderfully unrestrained, natural, and believable performances that arguably could not have been evoked with carefully trained young actors.
    • Criterion Collection essayist Geoffrey Macnab wrote: “There is nothing affected about their performances. Brook’s technique was as close to that of an anthropologist as a conventional film director. He took the kids to the island, gave them a broad outline of what they should be doing, and then turned on the camera and observed their behavior. He shot hours and hours of footage, then took this raw material and winnowed it down into a very taut ninety-minute film that closely follows the trajectory of the book.”
  • Even though this is a story about and starring pre-adolescent children, the story pulls no punches in its pessimism; as in the novel, kids are killed, hunted, and bullied and a pagan religion is created.
  • This is a very English story about a particular subset of English children that explores class differences.
    • Macnab further wrote that the kids are “from a privileged background. Their fathers are leaders—military commanders, politicians, captains of industry… Class is an issue as well, even in this remote wilderness. The reason Jack so despises Piggy is not just his appearance but also the fact that he is not of the right caste. Yes, Piggy is fat, wears spectacles, and looks like Billy Bunter, but the real problem is that he’s from Camberley. He’s suburban, lower-middle-class—an outsider among all these blue-blooded chorister types.”

Themes explored

  • The thin line between civilization and savagery, and how it’s easy to cross over that line given the right circumstances.
  • Man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, and the inescapability of the human condition, which is often dictated by hate, fright, a lust for power and control, and aggression.
  • Fascism can easily flourish without effective leadership or a shared, collective yearning for common decency and courtesy.
  • Trouble in paradise: The irony of this story is that these kids are marooned on a garden of Eden -like island where food and water are plentiful, there are no grown-ups to tell them what to do, there are no sexual complications to get in the way, and they can play endlessly; yet, violence, chaos, and religious zealotry quickly take root.
  • Rational, intellectual thought is in short supply when mob rule prevails. Ralph, Piggy, and Simon, who each represent the voice of reason and the conscience of the group, are quickly outnumbered by the sheer size, might, and determination of Jack’s tribe.

Similar works

  • Animal Farm
  • Heart of Darkness
  • Los Alivadados
  • The Beach
  • Life of Pi
  • Lost
  • Cast Away
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • The Blue Lagoon and Return to the Blue Lagoon
  • The Most Dangerous Game
  • The Maze Runner

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Irish-American cinema's best-kept secret

Monday, August 30, 2021

Folklore and tall tales are among the social currency of many cultures across the planet, with the Irish being no exception. But what if the larger-than-life myths your grandparents tell you as a bedtime story turn out to be true? That’s the cinematic narrative approach taken by filmmaker John Sayles in his memorable movie The Secret of Roan Inish. Our CineVerse group recently got a crash course in Gaelic and selkies as we explored this visually lush and thematically rich picture (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). Here’s a review of our talking points.
 

What did you find interesting, unexpected, or rewarding about The Secret of Roan Inish?

  • This is a family film for all ages, but it’s not Disney-fied, dumbed-down, overly sentimental and schmaltzy, or bloated with unnecessary special effects. Arguably, this is a movie that can be appreciated more by adults – many of whom have lost the ability to use their imagination and tap into inner child-like sensibilities – than kids, although it’s a perfectly appropriate film for families with young through older children, too.
  • This was a departure for Sayles, who is otherwise mostly known for films rooted in realism and specific periods that focus on sociocultural and sociopolitical themes.
  • The narrative shifts temporally, with many flashbacks and seemingly exaggerated sequences (that prove to not be tall tales at all but realistic accounts) upending the linearity of the story.
  • “The story unfolds forwards and backwards, simultaneously. This approach in the film gives one a strong sense of the connection between past and present, with Fiona as a link to the future,” wrote Jungian analyst Lara Newton.
  • Sayles isn’t flashy in his directing choices, avoiding grandiose gestures, showy camera movements, clever editing, and attention-getting special effects. With the help of master cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who captivates us with outstanding outdoor photography, we come to embrace this story organically. The visuals are helped by the decision to shoot on location in Donegal, Ireland, with certain sequences shot at the Isle of Mull in Argyll, Scotland.

Themes explored

  • Harmonizing with nature and restoring balance. Fiona, who herself is a dark one born to each new generation of the Coneelly family, is the bridge between the past and the future and the catalyst that will bring back her brother and rekindle a bond with the seals and the island of Roan Inish. Her steadfastness, honesty, and fearlessness help ultimately inspire her loved ones to embrace their old way of life, which involved coexisting amicably with nature on the island.
    • Movie reviewer Richard Scheib wrote: “The real Irish, the film seems to say, have been corrupted by having civilization imposed on them in the loss of their mystic harmony with the sea. The film spends much time showing the art of lost crafts like thatching and the tarring of boats.”
  • The virtue of keeping an open mind and thinking like a child, even when reality is blended with fantasy. This is a story about magic and myth that has to be taken literally, as it is told with realistic details and, except for the grandfather’s tall tale flashback scenes, is depicted as factual. Fiona’s actual younger brother’s return to the family after living with the seals; the grandparents and cousin also believe in the supernatural elements at work.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “The secret of John Sayles’ ‘The Secret of Roan Inish’ is that it tells of this young girl with perfect seriousness. This is not a children’s movie, not a fantasy, not cute, not fanciful. It is the exhilarating account of the way Fiona rediscovers her family’s history and reclaims their island. If, by any chance, you do not believe in Selkies, please at least keep an open mind, because in this film Selkies exist in the real world, just like you and me.”
  • The power of love, lineage, storytelling, and tradition. Fiona doesn’t give up on her little brother; her elders don’t dismiss her as a psychologically disturbed or overly imaginative child, giving credence to the legends and tales of old passed down from earlier generations; and this extended family stays loyal and true to its roots and bloodline.

Similar works

  • Into the West
  • The Golden Seal
  • The Indian in the Cupboard
  • The Water Horse
  • Where the Wild Things Are
  • The Secret Garden
  • Life of Pi
  • Field of Dreams
  • Tuck Everlasting

Other works by John Sayles

  • The Return of the Secaucus Seven
  • The Brother From Another Planet
  • Eight Men Out
  • Matewan
  • Passion Fish
  • Lone Star
  • Sunshine State

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Picture perfect on its golden anniversary

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

For Cineversary podcast episode #38, host Erik Martin welcomes back Barna Donovan, film professor at Saint Peter’s University and author of several books on the cinema, including Blood, Guns, and Testosterone: Action Films, Audiences, and a Thirst for Violence, and Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in the American Conscious. Erik and Barna revisit the Royal Theater, turn that dusty old projector on, and examine Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show as it prepares to celebrate a 50th anniversary this autumn, exploring why the film is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the film in 2021, and more.
Barna Donovan

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker, Castbox, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at anchor.fm/cineversary and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.

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That girl can wing

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Greta Gerwig is quickly proving herself to be a female film force to be reckoned with, not only in front of the camera but especially behind it (as evidenced, most recently, by her fantastic reimagining of Little Women, released in 2019). Our CineVerse group made a date last week with Lady Bird, Gerwig’s 2017 film about a quirky and memorable teenage girl, and quickly fell in love with its many charms. Here’s a recap of our discussion (to listen to a recording of our group conversation, click here).

What did you find interesting, unexpected, refreshing, or rewarding about Lady Bird?

  • Instead of being a tale about a maturing girl finding love and romance, this is a story primarily about the difficult relationship between a teenage daughter and her mother and how they need to appreciate each other more.
  • It doesn’t follow the same predictable cliché paths that perhaps other coming-of-age teenage comedy typically would. For example, the losing of Lady Bird’s virginity isn’t some profound, romantic, or grandiose experience. Lady Bird isn’t some ultra-hip, edgy, completely nonconformist character designed to set trends; she follows trajectories expected of real-life adolescents, like sucking up to the cool crowd and liking the Dave Matthews Band and Alanis Morrissette instead of obscure bands with more street cred. Consider that the main character lacks finer artistic sensibilities, is an undependable friend, and is an unexceptional student. Also, ponder that the teachers and clergy at the school are kind and understanding.
  • The film deftly achieves a nice balance totally between comedy and drama, minus the need for maudlin sensibilities.
    • Lara Zarum of The Village Voice wrote: “Lady Bird is a rare bird: sentimental without being saccharine, emotional without being contrived, able to conjure tears without yanking at our heartstrings while the music swells. Its matter-of-factness is what makes the film ultimately so wrenching. There’s no great tragedy here, and no great uplift; just life, as it’s actually lived, and the moments that make you who you are.”
  • Some of this story and its characters are semi-autobiographical, as writer/director Greta Gerwig grew up in Sacramento, had a controlling mother who worked as a nurse, and assumedly experienced many of the same feelings and events that Lady Bird does.

Themes explored

  • The often awkward transition from adolescence to adulthood.
  • The generation and communication gap between teenagers and their parents. Lady Bird and her mother have a strained relationship because they don’t know how to talk to each other or empathize with one another. They both take each other for granted: Marion is hyper-critical of her daughter and tries to micromanage her without being sensitive to what Lady Bird is going through or feeling, and Lady Bird doesn’t appreciate her mother’s intentions, hard work, and sacrifices she makes. While they repel each other, ironically, they are very similar in their steadfast ways, stubbornness, and convictions.
    • “In a way, it is about how impossible it is for teenagers to imagine the emotional lives of their parents, or to acknowledge those stricken elders’ devastating sense of abandonment and uselessness when the child leaves home and they have to suppress the symptoms of anger, competitive rage, and loss,” wrote The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.
  • Peer pressure and the importance of social acceptance. Lady Bird imposes pressure on herself to become deflowered, appeal to the popular and rich kids in school (to the detriment of her best friend), act in rebellious and forbidden ways (such as dissing the guest speaker and stealing her teacher’s grade book), and get stone drunk at a college party.
  • “Liking” vs. “loving, “ or appreciating your roots and your past. Throughout much of the film, Lady Bird expresses her dissatisfaction with her hometown of Sacramento and her yearning to spread her wings and live in a more culturally enriching environment. But by the end of the movie, she realizes that she misses home.
    • Recall the exchange between the nun and Lady Bird: Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento. Lady Bird: I do? Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care. Lady Bird: I was just describing it. Sister Sarah Joan: Well it comes across as love. Lady Bird: Sure, I guess I pay attention. Sister Sarah Joan: Don't you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?
    • Lady Bird asks her mother if she likes her. Marion replies that she loves her, but her daughter responds, “But do you like me?” A parent’s unconditional love for her child is assumed, but that parent may not like, admire, or respect her child much, which seems to be the case with Marion.
    • Similarly, Lady Bird realizes that she loves Sacramento after leaving it, even though she didn’t like her hometown while she lived there.
    • Diksha Sundriyal of The Cinemaholic wrote: “In the final monologue, she acknowledges her love for both of them. She thinks about the first time she drove around the city and how different it felt to her while also being all the same as it had always been. And the fact that she wanted to share this with her mother is the testament of how close they actually are to each other. She also addresses herself as Christine, which means she has shed over the Lady Bird phase, and has finally got around to accepting herself as is rather than what she thinks she should be.”

Similar works

  • Rushmore
  • Election
  • Boyhood
  • The Lovers
  • The Edge of Seventeen
  • Saved!
  • The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  • Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles
  • The Virgin Suicides

Other films directed by or starring Greta Gerwig

  • Little Women
  • Francis Ha
  • Mistress America

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Meet Billy, master house of cards builder

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on Billy Liar, one of the great charlatans of cinema and the subject of a fascinating early 1960s British comedy by director John Schlesinger. Our CineVerse group took a trip to the UK last week (metaphorically speaking) to investigate this underappreciated gem of a movie and came away with the following discoveries (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find interesting, unexpected, refreshing, or fulfilling about Billy Liar?

  • The picture is one of several British New Wave films, influenced by the French New Wave that came before it. British New Wave movies adopted a cinema variety/documentary approach, favored social realism, and were often shot in real locations – in Billy Liar, that meant Yorkshire and Bradford.
  • Billy Liar also belongs to a subgenre called the “angry young men” movie, which commonly depicted working-class male characters disheartened by contemporary society. These films often tackled social, political, and cultural problems and emphasized a gritty, realistic look and vibe.
  • This proved to be an early and breakout role for young new star Julie Christie, whose free-spirited and vivacious Liz commands the screen and serves as the perfect would-be muse for Billy.

Themes at work

  • The seductive nature of fantasy and illusion. Arguably, Billy chooses not to depart for the promise and excitement of London with Liz because his prospects and fortunes there cannot possibly live up to his fantasies. This movie also serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of daydreaming your way through life, which results in Billy’s grandmother turning ill, his romantic relationships falling apart, and him possibly being prosecuted by his former employer.
  • The inevitability of accountability. Billy time and again demonstrates that he is not reliable or responsible in his duties at home, at work, or in relationships. But perhaps it’s the advice his mother gives him at the end of the film that forces him to confront his responsibilities and ultimately choose to remain at home. She says: “We need you at home, lad… If you’re in any more trouble, Billy, it’s not something you can leave behind you, you know. You put it in your suitcase, and you take it with you.” Interestingly, the cartons of milk that Billy purchases represent the purity and nurturing power of mother’s milk, or his mother’s advice, which contributes to him missing the train.
  • The generation gap and the vast gulf between parents and their growing children.
  • New world versus old world. In tandem with the theme of generational divides, Billy Liar suggests the contrast between pre-swinging London New Britain and old Britain (as demonstrated by the demolition of several old edifices and buildings being replaced by modern towers and structures) and between older, antiquated, and racist values and newer more open-minded values.
    • Blogger Richard Keeble wrote: “Billy’s ambrosia is linked to the very real new world he has been exposed to through his education and the surrounding societal change… He has been seduced by the promises of the new world… Liz represents the new spirit of 1960s Britain at its most dazzling; she represents the elusive promises of the New World… She encourages his fantasies, even appealing in several of them as his wife or official aid. These are expressions of his rebellion against the world of his parents and grandparents… The film portrays the New World, for better or worse, as fundamentally disruptive. It will inevitably fall to Billy, therefore, to make a choice between its promises and his responsibilities at home.”

Similar works

  • British New Wave films and movies that imbue kitchen-sink realism and explore angry young men characters, including Look Back in Anger, Room at the Top, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, This Sporting Life, Bitter Harvest, and Alfie
  • The James Thurber short story The Secret the Life of Walter Mitty
  • Jo Jo Rabbit

Other films by John Schlesinger

  • A Kind of Loving
  • Far from the Madding Crowd
  • Midnight Cowboy
  • Sunday Bloody Sunday
  • The Day of the Locust
  • The Falcon and the Snowman

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Hollywood builds a house

Friday, August 6, 2021

Superhero movies inspire our imaginations to soar above the clouds. Science-fiction features tantalize with their futuristic prospects of technological innovation. And fantasy films bring out the hidden adventurer in us all, arousing bravery in the pursuit of an impossible quest.

But it’s flicks about fixer-uppers and homes being built in the real world that may prove to motivate us more in the long run, many believe. The reason? We can better relate to these challenging housing endeavors undertaken by serious and comedic characters alike in a variety of motion pictures. Been there, done that is the takeaway by plenty of viewers, while yet-to-be homeowners consider the cautionary tales to be learned from some of these home improvement and construction projects depicted by Hollywood.

I recently wrote an article recommending several films focused on home improvement and construction, published in the Dallas Morning News, available here.

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Life in the big city--from a 7-year-old's vantage point

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Revered by cinema scholars, filmmakers, and fans as one of the true pioneering works of the independent film movement, Little Fugitive, co-created by written Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, and Ray Ashley, stands as a verité Americana masterwork and classic time capsule of life in early 1950s New York City – as told from the perspective of a seven-year-old boy and his older brother. Using nonactors and shooting primarily outdoors on location among thousands of New Yorkers, the picture still wows nearly seven decades later, perhaps functioning more effectively as an accurate sociocultural document than a work of commercial entertainment. We applied the CineVerse approach to this film last week and arrived at several realizations (To listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What took you by surprise about Little Fugitive and left a strong impression?

  • This film serves as an important bridge between the Italian neorealism period of the 1940s and the French new wave of the late 1950s/early 1960s. Françoise Truffaut cited it as a major influence on the latter, particularly thanks to its guerrilla filmmaking approach to on-location shooting to capture the immediacy and honesty of a particular time, place, and community naturalistically.
  • This movie is credited as being the first commercially successful independent American feature film. It grossed four times its production budget of approximately $30,000, earned an Academy award nomination for best writing, and was awarded the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
  • A major reason behind it success was the ability of the filmmakers to shoot on location, practically incognito, thanks to the invention of a one-of-a-kind concealed strap-on camera that didn’t require a tripod or big crew. Co-director Morris Engel was able to strap this small handheld camera on his shoulder and shoot up close and personal to his subjects, allowing him to organically document the rhythms and actions of real New Yorkers.
    • Importantly, the filmmakers opted not to use low-cost and lightweight 16-mm cameras/film stock, which could have provided the same mobile camera freedom and flexibility. Using 35 mm created a higher-quality, less gritty image, making Little Fugitive look like many other professionally-shot Hollywood black and white movies at the time.
  • Additionally, the film employed non-professional actors. The casting of Richie Andrusco, a seven-year-old with no acting experience who was discovered while waiting in line for a carousel ride, is inspired; the entire film and its success rides on our belief in Andrusco’s portrayal of Joey and his effortless ability to act naturally, never breaking the fourth wall or giving an over-rehearsed line reading.
  • Wisely, the filmmakers emphasized character, look, and slice-of-life spontaneity over narrative or plot, apparently allowing many of the scenes to unfold spontaneously or present themselves as happy accidents (like the abrupt rainstorm that occurs, or the way Andrusco hits the baseball in the batting cage).
  • This picture stands as an incredible time capsule of a very particular place and time in American history, when kids idolized cowboys, parents seemed less micromanaging of their offspring, the Brooklyn Dodgers and Coney Island were major Big Apple draws, and you could eat, drink, and make merry on the spare change in your pocket.
    • It’s also fascinating to see the friendly coexisting and intermingling of white and black New Yorkers, even before anti-segregation laws went into effect.

Themes at work

  • The innocence and simplicity of childhood and the secret life of kids. Despite being surrounded by a complex urban mileu and countless adults running things, little Joey navigates his way to fun and fulfillment, making the viewer recall his or her own youth and appreciating the small details that matter to kids.
  • The wonderful randomness of life. A sudden rainstorm, an unexpected urge to use the bathroom, the unforeseen emergence of a means of needed income (collecting pop bottles), and the lucky circumstance in which Joey’s brother is able to find his lost sibling all stand as examples of how life is often unplanned and unscripted, as this movie commonly feels and looks.
  • The resourcefulness and resiliency of children. Joey, only seven years old, proves himself rugged, tough, self-confident, and physically and emotionally capable of caring for himself despite extreme circumstances – including being lost, lacking money and shelter, and feeling guilt and fear from presumably killing his brother.

Similar works

  • Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts
  • The 400 Blows (1959) and other works of the French new wave
  • Italian neorealism films, including Bicycle Thieves and Rome: Open City
  • Faces and other works by American independent movement pioneer John Cassavetes
  • Kes
  • The Spirit of the Beehive
  • I Was Born, But…
  • Home Alone
  • Small Change

Other films by Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin

  • Lovers and Lollipops
  • Weddings and Babies

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Walk a mile in my silent shoes

Thursday, July 29, 2021

African-American filmmaker Charles Lane does more than pay tribute to Charles Chaplin and his film The Kid with Lane’s Sidewalk Stories. His black-and-white silent comedy serves as a time capsule showcase for New York City and its diverse occupants and neighborhoods in the late 1980s and demonstrates that a fully realized artistic vision can be achieved successfully without sound or color, especially if you give the audience characters and situations they can appreciate. CineVerse metaphorically walked the concrete and steel streets of the Big Apple last week in its examination of this picture (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion) and arrived at the following observations.

What struck you as surprising, curious, fulfilling, or out of the ordinary about Sidewalk Stories?

  • It’s both a black-and-white and silent film in the modern age of cinema, one of only a handful of this type to be made in the sound era of the last 90 years.
  • The filmmakers choose not to even use dialogue cards in between shots, forcing us to pay closer attention to the character’s actions and body language and even read lips to some extent – essentially requiring active participation from the viewer, who must learn things in context.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “I think perhaps the silent format inspires us to participate more directly in the movie. A sound film comes to us, approaches us - indeed, it sometimes assaults us from the screen. But a silent film stays up there on the glowing wall, and we rise up to meet it. We take our imagination and join it with the imagination of the filmmaker."
  • Director/actor Charles Lane has plenty of opportunities to mine comedy gold and evoke bigger laughs via Chaplin tricks like slapstick and sight gags, but he chooses not to go as much for the funnybone as for the heart.
  • The success of this movie, and our interest in it, depends a great deal on the chemistry between the artist and the little girl (played by Lane’s real-life daughter), who is irresistibly adorable and perfect for the scenes she’s in.
  • This picture was filmed over only 15 days on a $200,000 budget, yet the filmed locations include a great cross-section of memorable New York sites and areas.
  • While Lane infuses sentimentality into this story, it’s not saccharine sweet. For instance, the ending remains ambiguous: it’s not clear if he and the store owner end up together or how the little girl grows up. Instead, the filmmakers leave us with thoughts of the underprivileged and societal castoffs, who are given the last word – literally.

Themes at work

  • The voicelessness of the homeless and underprivileged. The movie is making a statement about how the struggles of the homeless and poor aren’t being heard or paid attention to by society. Interestingly, the film remains completely wordless until the last scene, in which the voices of the destitute and displaced are given volume by the filmmakers.
  • “Comedy as a mode of survival,” according to Slant magazine critic Steve Macfarlane. Telling this tale straight without humor and exaggerated comedic effect would be powerfully depressing for the characters as well as the audience. “Diverting his viewers time and again from the grimness of the film’s scenario, Lane actually manages to reinforce it, driving the stakes higher,” Macfarlane continues.
  • Everyone can make a difference in the lives of others, regardless of class, race, or clout. A seemingly insignificant street peddler proves that, despite his lack of resources or parental know-how, he can salvage a tragic situation and assume the responsibility of caring for a young temporarily orphaned child.
  • The tapestry of intersecting and interesting lives found in a big urban melting pot. The artist isn’t the only colorful and attention-grabbing character in this movie. There is also the street dancer, street magician, rival artist bully, the pair of hoodlums, and the store owner who falls for the artist.

Similar works

  • The Kid, City Lights, Modern Times, and other works by Charles Chaplin featuring the Little Tramp character
  • The Artist
  • Films and shorts starring and directed by Buster Keaton
  • Midnight Cowboy

Other films directed by and/or starring Charles Lane

  • True Identity
  • Posse
  • The Mind

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You don't have to search far to find the finest western ever

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Glenn Frankel
For Cineversary podcast episode #37, host Erik Martin teams up with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and film scholar Glenn Frankel, author of The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, to honor the 65th anniversary of one of the greatest western of all time: The Searchers, directed by John Ford. Erik and Glenn probe deep into the dark psychological crevices of this celebrated but controversial American classic and investigate the myths and majesty of Ford's glorious western canvas as they explore why the film is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the film in 2021, and more.

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBreakerCastboxPocket CastsPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at anchor.fm/cineversary and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.

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An empress on the outs

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Palace intrigue pictures and period costume dramas have entertained audiences for generations. A recent standout in this subgenre is Farewell, My Queen, which uses the last days of the French monarchy as a backdrop for a tale about a commoner determined to serve her endangered queen Marie Antoinette. This film got the CineVerse treatment last week, with numerous opinions given and observations made during our group discussion (which you can listen to here). Here’s a summary of our conversation:

What did you find notable, unexpected, distinctive, or satisfying about Farewell, My Queen?

  • The setting is the start of the French Revolution, but we aren’t shown any beheadings or violence. For that matter, the story is entirely told from the perspective of the queen’s faithful servants, particularly her reader Sidonie.
  • This is not a story about Marie Antoinette – it’s about one of her servants and the way that monarchs use their power, and the access they grant to that power, to create a hierarchical structure in which power dynamics can shift depending on how close you are to the king or queen.
  • Also, this is not an action narrative: it’s a reaction narrative, in which suspense and intrigue are built by following the reactions of the queen’s servants to an impending revolution.
  • The camera seems to be voyeuristically prowling about, as evidenced by how it follows Sidonie around (often from behind) and lingers on bustiers, cleavage, and naked bodies. While it’s doubtful that the filmmakers were trying to be prurient and exploitative, the way the lens focuses on the female form suggests perhaps that this is a male-dominated society in which females were treated as objects.

Themes at work

  • The contrast between the haves and have-nots. Farewell, My Queen depicts the opulence and decadence of the royal household versus the grimy, tainted banality of the commoners’ and peons’ habitats. We see the power, privilege, and wealth that the monarchy commands compared to the relative lack of agency, freedom, and resources that the Queen’s subjects possess.
    • Slant magazine’s Jesse Cataldo wrote: “Control is the operative element in Benoît Jacquot’s work, with the main caveat being that when someone has it, someone else does not. This prevailing concept sets the stage for detailed examinations of interpersonal power dynamics, presented as games or struggles, with an acute eye toward the roles and responsibilities of women.”
    • Likewise, we see imagery and hear evidence of vermin and pests like rats, mosquitoes, and spiders representing the inability of the royal household to remain pure, clean, and unblemished and signifying impending doom and decay.
  • Running out of time. We know from the dates given that it’s only a matter of time before heads will roll and the monarchy comes crashing down in France. This film depicts a handful of days that lead up to those monumental events, and the predominant symbol at work is the royal clock lent to Sidonie; once that clock is stolen, order and structure begin to collapse and the countdown to the end of an era for the royalty and its court begins. The takeaway? Nothing lasts forever, especially something created by human beings, who are fallible and impermanent.
  • The secret lives of women both powerful and unpowerful in a world controlled by men. Farewell, My Queen features predominantly female characters, shining a spotlight on the private passions, proclivities, and lifestyles of women just prior to the French Revolution. Interestingly, Sidonie begins the film as a servant but ends it as a survivor, outliving her female counterparts. Consider, also, that Sidonie appears to have a young crush on the queen and demonstrates her undying fealty to Marie Antoinette.

Similar works

  • Previous films about or featuring Marie Antoinette as a character, including Madame Du Barry (1934), Marie Antoinette (1938), and The Affair of the Necklace (2001), and Marie Antoinette (2006)
  • A Royal Affair (2012)
  • The Duchess (2008)
  • The Girl King (2015)
  • The Favourite (2018)
  • The Lady and the Duke (2001)
  • The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

Other works by Benoit Jacquot

  • La Désenchantée
  • A Single Girl
  • Deep In the Woods
  • Three Hearts
  • Diary of a Chambermaid

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Dark Star: a dark horse but lightweight sci-fi

Monday, July 12, 2021

Sandwiched uncomfortably between the chasm that was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Wars (1977), John Carpenter’s fledgling directorial debut Dark Star attempts to put a comedic touch on previous Kubrickian ideas while also foreshadowing the blue-collar space truckin’ sensibilities of Alien. It’s a bit of a cosmic mess, and the low-tech visual effects, amateurish acting, and abrupt tonal shifts do little to improve matters. Still, Dark Star is a film rippling with interesting ideas, imagery, and memorable bits that will be explored in later genre pictures. Our CineVerse band took a test flight last week and came away with the following impressions (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here):


Similar works

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Star Trek
  • THX 1138, which also began as a student film
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • Ray Bradbury’s short story Kaleidoscope
  • Alien
  • Star Wars
  • Moon
  • Sci-fi comedies like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Spaceballs

What did you find unexpected, distinctive, or surprising about Dark Star?

  • This looks to be just a few rungs above a student film on the production value, acting, and screenplay scale. Filmmakers John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon began this production as a short while they were college students; they were given more money by a producer to add more scenes and pad out the length to feature film runtime, with a final budget clocking in at around $60,000. Despite this paltry price tag, the collaborators were able to accomplish some impressive feats, even for 1974 film standards and special effects expectations.
  • The influences here are obvious (especially Kubrick works), but Dark Star also would have inspired Star Wars, Alien, and subsequent sci-fil films, especially with its depiction of traveling through hyperspace and its notion of an escaped alien loose on the ship wreaking havoc.
  • This is a rare work of sci-fi comedy. On its surface, this seems to be a sobering drama, but quickly we pick up comedic sensibilities, jokes, and humorous bits, which makes it easier to accept the budgetary and visual effect shortcomings.

Themes at work

  • Existentialism (exploring the nature of the human condition and existence), epistemology (investigating what distinguishes justified belief from opinion), and applied philosophy (like Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”). Doolittle arguing with a sentiment bomb capable of artificial intelligence, trying to dissuade it from detonating based on logic, serves as a spoof of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its exploration of AI’s ability to surpass humans.
  • Ennui, regardless of the setting or milieu. Director John Carpenter described this story as “Waiting for Godot in space,” and “truck drivers in space.” These are everyday, blue-collar Joes who have grown bored with their mission, despite its huge significance and the grandiosity of their surroundings. This isn’t some noble quest or giant leap for mankind; these are clock-punchers hired to pave a clear path on the cosmic superhighway.
  • Cosmic irony. Having to rationalize and debate philosophical notions with a sentient but stubborn bomb, destroying rather than exploring new worlds in a routine of mindless violence, being millions of miles from Earth without toilet paper, and getting humiliated and outfoxed by a silly extraterrestrial gasbag of a pet are among the sardonic statements being made by the filmmakers, who seem intent to de-glamorize the supposed allure and prestige of space travel.
  • The inability to escape our inherent human condition. It is in our nature as humans to destroy things, argue, fight, become bored and complacent, take things for granted, and abuse or neglect what we regard as lower life forms.
  • The hard work required to achieve rugged individualism. Slant Magazine reviewer Simon Abrams wrote: “The fact that there’s no logical way to not emotionally malfunction aboard the Dark Star speaks to the film’s central egocentrism: everybody has to do everything themselves, even the Smart Bomb that obliterates the ship after it reasons that it is, in fact, God: ‘The only thing that exists is My Self’…Dark Star remains one of the best expressions of that quest for personal freedom because it was principally created by two artists that define themselves by their own fierce intellect and staunch individualism.”

Other films by John Carpenter

  • Halloween
  • Escape From New York
  • The Thing
  • Starman
  • They Live
  • In the Mouth of Madness

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